Bay Area staircases — aside from getting our hearts pumping and quads crying — connect us to the world around us, helping us reach mountain vistas, gardens, artwork, seascapes and neighborhoods. Through them, we can also learn incredible stories about this region, whether the staircase runs through a Civil War-era fort, past a neighborhood mosaic or along America’s oldest trail race course.
Here are five incredible outdoor staircase hikes that will take you up secret garden paths, down mosaic staircases, out to the historic batteries near the Golden Gate Bridge and more.
“Grab a bite” recommendations are included for each, as well as suggested hiking routes with handy Google maps. (Just take care crossing streets: Many routes cross roads without pedestrian crosswalks.) Enjoy the phenomenal views and fresh air on these epic staircase hikes.
Communications Hill, San José
Inspired by San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, Communications Hill was named for the 114-foot communication tower on its summit. Today, it’s a popular urban community near downtown San Jose. Although its cypress-lined Grand Staircase is the star, the neighborhood also features Santa Cruz Mountain vistas from scenic overlooks, charming staircases leading to hidden courtyards and even ping-pong tables — bring your own balls and paddles — at William Lewis Manly Park.
Hike: A 2.2-mile loop explores the Communications Hill neighborhood, where you can visit the Grand Staircase, Vieira Park and William Lewis Manly Park via a combination of staircases, sidewalks and the paved Communications Hill Trail.
Route: Find a Google map, customized for you for this hiking route, at https://tinyurl.com/communicationshillloop.
Details: Street parking is often available near Vieira Park, Grassina Street and Adeline Avenue in San José (www.sanjoseca.gov), and may be available near the Grand Staircase on Mullinix Way, as well. The Grand Stairway’s hours are 1 hour before sunrise to 1 hour after sunset. No public restrooms.
Grab a bite: Pick up a meat or vegetarian empanada at friendly Milohas, a Colombian empanaderia 4.5 miles southwest of Communications Hill at 4662 Meridian Ave. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday, with online ordering available at www.milohaspastries.com.
Hidden Garden Steps, San Francisco
The same artists — Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher — who designed San Francisco’s famous 16th Avenue Tiled Steps are behind a brilliant mosaic stairway called the Hidden Garden Steps 0.3 miles down the street. The wondrous and intricately detailed mosaic, unveiled in 2013 and invisible on the way down, features large-scale wildflowers and forest creatures flowing up 148 steps like a waterfall, surrounded by succulent gardens.
Hike: A 2.7-mile round-trip hike begins at Golden Gate Park, visits both mosaic staircases, and then climbs to a vista at Grandview Park. On the way back, pick up a pre-ordered treat from Arizmendi Bakery to enjoy at the San Francisco Botanical Garden.
Details: Find the Hidden Garden Steps at 16th Avenue and Kirkham Street in San Francisco; http://hiddengardensteps.org. There is street parking near the Hidden Garden Steps and on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Golden Gate Park. Public restrooms at the San Francisco Botanical Garden at 1199 Ninth Ave.; www.sfbg.org.
Grab a bite: Arizmendi Bakery churns out morning pastries, thin-crust gourmet pizza and vegetable-topped focaccia squares from its digs at 1331 Ninth Ave. Open Tuesday-Sunday with online ordering available at www.arizmendibakery.com.
Berkeley Rose Garden and Stairways Hike, Berkeley
Berkeley’s secret garden-like paths and stairways were built in the early 1900s so hillside residents could access the streetcars and rail lines far below. Many of these steps and trails were grown over or forgotten, until 1997 when residents formed the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, a volunteer group that publishes a map of the paths and maintains them. Today, more than 100 numbered paths and stairways provide a quiet burst of nature as you explore the neighborhood.
Hike: The Berkeley Rose Garden is a beautiful starting point, with 250 varieties of roses on a terraced amphitheater. Map in hand ($12, www.berkeleypaths.org), explore the stairways northeast towards Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Or follow this 4.1-mile loop over a dozen stairways …
Details: The Berkeley Rose Garden at 1200 Euclid Ave. is open daily; www.cityofberkeley.info. Find street parking on Euclid Avenue and public restrooms at Codornices Park.
Grab a bite: Fava serves fresh, seasonal fare. Pick up a falafel flatbread sandwich (I recommend adding hummus) to enjoy at Live Oak Park a couple of blocks north. Fava is open Wednesday through Saturday at 2114 Vine St., with online ordering available at www.favaonvine.com.
The Dipsea, Mill Valley
The 7.5-mile Dipsea is the second oldest footrace in America, after the Boston Marathon — and the oldest trail running race — first run in 1905 to settle a bet among members of a San Francisco athletic club over who could run the fastest from Mill Valley to the Dipsea Inn. It’s typically held on the second Sunday in June, but after going virtual last year — you could run the race alone on the trail or complete it in your own neighborhood — this year’s race is scheduled for Nov. 7.
The race route is a popular hike, too, with outstanding ocean vistas, rainforest-like ravines, wildflowers, lengthy staircases and maze-like junctions. Beginning in Mill Valley, it climbs three long staircases — more than 650 steps — through mountain neighborhoods and then descends to Muir Woods. Next, it traverses the southern slope of Mount Tam to the Pacific Ocean.
Hike: The 7.3-mile, one-way hike begins at Mill Valley’s Old Mill Park and traces the moderately strenuous Dipsea Trail to Stinson Beach. New trail signs and course photos are helpful for navigating.
Details: Find street parking near Old Mill Park, at Throckmorton Avenue and Old Mill Street in Mill Valley; www.cityofmillvalley.org/community/parks/. Arrange for a pick-up at Stinson Beach or catch the West Marin Stagecoach bus back to Mill Valley; https://marintransit.org/stagecoach. There are public restrooms at Old Mill Park and Stinson Beach.
Grab a bite: Grab a deli sandwich — like the pesto and roasted vegetable-filled Dipsea — at the Mill Valley Market at 12 Corte Madera Ave. The market is open daily, and you can order online at www.millvalleymarket.com.
Fort Point to Historic Batteries, San Francisco
The northwestern edge of the San Francisco Peninsula is a phenomenal spot to soak in views of the Golden Gate Bridge and coastal batteries. Beneath the bridge, near her southern anchorage, is Fort Point, a Civil War-era brick fort completed in 1861. Head for the roof and its cannon mounts for vistas of the Marin Headlands, San Francisco Bay, Angel Island and Alcatraz.
A striking arch stretches above, rainbow-like and designed specifically to preserve Fort Point when the Golden Gate Bridge was being built in the 1930s. Stairs near the Warming Hut on Crissy Field connect to the Golden Gate Bridge Visitor Plaza, batteries and bluff-side ocean views on the Batteries to Bluffs Trail.
Hike: A 3.7-mile balloon loop begins at Fort Point, climbs up the bluff and under the Golden Gate Bridge to the Batteries to Bluffs Trail. It returns via the Coastal Trail.
Details: The Fort Point National Historic Site is open Friday through Monday at 999 Marine Drive in San Francisco; www.nps.gov/fopo. Free parking. Public restrooms near Fort Point and the Warming Hut.
Grab a bite: The Warming Hut Park Store offers tea, coffee and hot chocolate, along with pre-packaged treats, energy bars, snacks and souvenirs. Open Thursday through Monday at 983 Marine Drive; www.parksconservancy.org.
Dan Carter was a reporter for nomad Labs, before becoming the lead editor. Dan has over forty bylines and has reported on countless stories concerning all things related to tech and science. Dan studied at CSUF.